Apparently what I’m really interested in these days is bunting. Which is a little odd, but which is also a welcome break from thinking about pitch-framing all the time. And though bunting is ordinarily associated with the dreaded and unproductive sacrifice, a well-placed bunt in fair territory can make for a hell of a weapon, in particular when it’s put down by a left-handed hitter against a defensive overshift. Everybody’s talking about shifting these days, and while it’s hard for a hitter to make dramatic changes to his swing, oftentimes there’s a single there for the taking, and it would require no swing at all. So bunting and the shift are worth analyzing in more detail.
Yesterday, I was excited to generate some bunting statistics I’d never seen anywhere before. Obviously, I’d seen bunt batting averages and whatnot, but I’d never seen attempts, including foul bunts and missed bunts. I was pleased to have that data, but the data also didn’t say enough. You can’t just characterize a fair bunt as a successful bunt. And within all bunt attempts are attempts at different sorts of bunts. A sacrifice bunt is different from a bunt for a hit, and a bunt for a hit against the shift is different from a bunt for a hit against a regular alignment. I made it a goal to dig a little deeper, because, what is it to bunt against the shift, really?
The first thing I did was pull up this article from the Hardball Times, talking about hitters shifted most often. That mostly confirmed what I would’ve expected. Then I started generating numbers. I looked for bunt attempts by lefties with nobody on base. Then I narrowed the numbers down, based on who I figured was bunting against the shift, and who was just bunting for an ordinary attempted single. The former group was mostly plodders and sluggers — the latter group was mostly speedsters. This required some judgment calls, because I didn’t confirm every single attempt on video, but while the numbers might not be perfect, they ought to be close. I generated numbers for 2013, and then I did the same for 2012, following the same guidelines and assumptions.
It won’t surprise you to learn there haven’t been all that many bunt attempts against the shift. This is the very reason certain people have been complaining. I came up with just over 200 attempts over two years. Of those attempts, 38% were bunted fair, and 25% of the bunts resulted in the batter reaching base, either on a hit or an error. In other words, one of four attempted bunts put the batter on, but two of three bunts in play worked out, which isn’t a shock. Thing about the overshift is there’s not really anyone in the vicinity to do the fielding.
You might think these rates look low. Or you might think these rates look high! We don’t really have much of a frame of reference. What we can guess is that these are the rates by and large posted by a group of hitters who don’t have much experience bunting. So with more practice, we’d expect some improvement. Here’s Athletics batter Brandon Moss, who frequently faces a shift:
“A lot of guys might look at it as, ‘If I bunt, I’m not giving myself a chance to drive the ball.’ You’re just giving yourself an opportunity to get on base for your team. It was something I wanted to do last year, but I had no idea what I was doing. I think they want me to do it, too.”
Moss acknowledges that bunting was weird. He’s actively working this spring training to make bunting less weird. What one would expect is that Moss would become better at bunting successfully. And then that’s just something to have in his back pocket.
This is what a regular successful bunt against the shift looks like:
And this is how easy it is to reach base if you can put the ball where you want:
What might be the upside for shifted hitters learning to bunt? The undisputed king of bunting to beat the shift is Carlos Pena. Since 2008, with nobody on, Pena has attempted a bunt 65 times. He’s bunted the ball fair 33 times, and he’s reached base 23 times. Even with practice, Pena’s right around a 50/50 fair/not-fair rate, but he’s turned better than a third of his attempts into bases. We find Jay Bruce at 30 attempts, with nine fair and five successful. Brian McCann also has 30 attempts, with eight fair and six successful. What’s clear is that bunting against the shift isn’t automatic. What’s also clear is that it’s worked often, and that these hitters could do better if they just practiced their bunting more. I suppose that’s just a guess, but I feel good about it.
What does bunting in front of a shifted defense do to the defense? After all, there are two thoughts — not only can a bunt mean a base, but it can also mean an adjusted shift that might make it more productive to swing away. It might even make the shift go away altogether. Here’s Chris Davis showing bunt against the Angels last May:
In the next game, Davis tried a bunt. Here’s the infield:
Overshift. Davis then tried to bunt again. Here’s the infield:
The third baseman had moved in a little, but the shift was still on. Here’s the infield after two bunt attempts, along with the shown bunt the previous evening:
Still shifted. The third baseman had cheated over a little, but only by a matter of steps. And as it happened, Davis hit a grounder right to him. The Angels acknowledged the bunt possibility, but they did little to counter it.
How about Adrian Gonzalez, last July? Here’s Gonzalez attempting a bunt:
Extreme shift. Gonzalez tried to bunt again, immediately:
Same shift. Here’s the infield after the two bunt attempts:
No changes. In fairness, Gonzalez didn’t do much of anything to force a change — his bunts, after all, were unsuccessful. You’d think a manager would only change his shift if he felt like there was an actual bunt threat. Why don’t we check in on something, then? Carlos Pena, as noted, is the king of bunting against the shift. Pena played a long time with Tampa Bay. Here’s Pena facing Tampa Bay last season, right before Pena was dropped:
Extreme shift. The Rays, of course, hadn’t forgotten about Pena’s bunting ability. But that picture was taken with two strikes, and with two strikes, the Rays changed things up, swapping Yunel Escobar and Evan Longoria. Here’s how the Rays played Pena before two-strike counts:
Still three shifted infielders, but one in close, protecting against the possible bunt attempt. Pena’s history didn’t cause the Rays to abandon the shift — it just caused them to alter it a little, moving one guy closer in and closer to third. That’s also the one guy least likely to have a batted ball hit on the ground in his direction anyway. The message being, bunts don’t make the shift disappear. At least, there’s no evidence of that yet. They might just make the shifts look a little bit different, but most of the action’s still going to go between first and second base. There might be more area opened up around where the shortstop would usually be, but lefties don’t hit a ton of grounders over there, and there is still a defender on that side no matter what.
The math is still probably on the side of more bunt attempts. It’s definitely on the side of hitters practicing bunting more often so that they can be more successful when it counts. There should at least be the perception of the threat of a bunt. Over the last two years, shifted batters haven’t been great bunters, but when they’ve bunted the ball fair they’ve reached base twice as often as they haven’t. The numbers show that bunting against the shift is by no means an easy thing, not that any aspect of hitting is easy. And based on the Carlos Pena/Rays example, it doesn’t look like bunting is the solution to eliminating the overshift. It might just slightly alter the overshift, if bunts are dropped down with greater success and greater frequency. Shifting, presumably, is here to stay. The only question is exactly what the shifts are going to look like.
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